NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson XI)
John Calvin has an interesting comment in which he sees the vice mentioned in verse 14 being opposite in character from the one mentioned in verse 13. He writes: “The meaning is, that they are in every way full of wickedness; for if they speak fair, they deceive and blend poison with their flattering; but if they spew forth what they have in their hearts, bitterness and cursing stream out.”1 How true that is even in our day. Sometimes the greatest deceivers speak in calm and gentle terms, pretending that they care. But if you could hear what they really are thinking, you would be devastated.
Frédéric Godet has an interesting exposition on these verses: “These four propositions refer to the different organs of speech, and show them all exercising their power to hurt, under the dominion of sin. The throat is compared to a sepulcher; this refers to the language of the gross and brutal man, of whom it is said in common parlance: it seems as if he would like to eat you up. The characteristic which follows contrasts with the former; it is the sugared tongue, which charms you like a melodious instrument.”2 This may conjure up the sight of a snake-charmer making the cobra come up out of the basket as he plays his flute. In man’s case, it is a deceiver invoking the spirit of the devil that lies dormant in our hearts to rise up with the magical sound of his voice.
Verses 15-17: “They run around looking for someone to destroy. Everywhere they go they cause misery and ruin. They just don’t know how to live in peace.”
But it was not just their attitude that was corrupt, it was also the actions they took to express that attitude. Here Paul paraphrases what the prophet Isaiah had to say: “Their feet run to evil, they rush to shed innocent blood, their thoughts are thoughts of wickedness, their paths lead to havoc and ruin. The way of shalom3 they do not know.”4 This thought that Paul borrows from Isaiah rings true for a breed of humans today we call “terrorists.” They have no peace within them so they are determined to destroy peace wherever it can be found. Later on, Isaiah would write: “There is no shalom, says my God, for the wicked.”5
Paul knew that the Jews had their teachings on living one’s life in shalom which involved their good nature, friendliness, and congeniality. For instance, we find this in their Mishnah related to holding quiet and orderly services in the synagogue: “The following rules were declared in the interest of peace: A priest is called up first to read [in the Torah] and after him, a Levite and then, an Israelite, in the interest of peace.”6 In other words, by learning how to worship in peace by having everyone read God’s Word, the same could apply to the home and workplace. Can you imagine the change that would come over America if every morning, in every workplace, they would start each day with devotions by having different people, starting with the boss on down, reading from God’s Word followed by prayer?
Such living in harmony and peace did not extend only to the synagogue, but to every aspect of community life among the Jews. We read this in their Talmud: “A city in which Israelites and Gentiles live — the collectors of funds for the support of the poor collect equally from Israelites and from Gentiles, for the sake of peace. They provide support for the poor of the Gentiles along with the poor of Israel, for the sake of peace. They make a lament for, and bury, gentile dead, for the sake of peace. They express condolences to Gentile mourners, for the sake of peace.”7
But in writing his commentary on this subject of peace in the Mishnah and Talmud, one highly respected Jewish Rabbi includes this caution: “We should provide for poor Gentiles together with poor Jews for the sake of peace. One should not rebuke Gentiles [from taking] leket,8 shich’chah,9 and pe’ah,10 for the sake of peace. One may inquire about their well-being – even on their festivals – for the sake of peace.” But then Rabbi Maimonides adds this restriction: “One may never repeat good wishes to them. Also, one should not enter the house of a Gentile on one of his festivals to wish him well. If one encounters him in the marketplace, one may greet him meekly with a serious countenance.”11 In other words, even though God made the law, man was allowed to make exceptions to the law as he sees fit.
With regard to the despicable act of looking for someone to murder, early Church writer Ambrosiaster has this to say: “Scripture says this about the murder of the prophets, whom they killed without hesitation—’slow to do good but swift to murder.’12”13 And a contemporary of Ambrosiaster had this to say: “Either Paul is referring to murderers or he means those who kill souls by flattery, which is why Paul said in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.’14”15 Ambrosiaster is suggesting that we take the word “murder” as a metaphor for those whose intent is to destroy the reputation of someone through character assassination.
Then commenting on living in peace, Origen comments: “Christ is our peace. Therefore the way of peace is the way of Christ, which sinners do not know.”16 To which Pelagius adds: “Everything which resembles the teaching of God is at peace with Paul, but everything which is contrary to it is at odds with him.”17 Then Ambrosiaster makes this comment: “Having chosen the way of hostility, along which they were heading toward the second death, they did not want to know about the way which leads to eternal life. This is called the way of peace, because with God as its guardian it will have no disturbance. Those who will the good have this rest with God.18”19
H. A. Ironside gives us his insights: “The law was given to a special people as we have seen. They alone were ‘under the law.’ That Gentiles were not, we have already been told in chapter Romans 2:12-14. How, then, does the failure of those under the law bring in all the world as guilty before God? An illustration may help. A man has a desert ranch of large extent. He is told it is worthless as pasturage or farming land. He fences off twelve acres; breaks it, harrows it, fertilizes it, sows it, cultivates it, and reaps only sagebrush and cactus! It is no use trying out the rest, for all is of the same character. He says it is all good-for-nothing, so far as agriculture is concerned. Israel was God’s twelve acres. He gave them His law, instructed them, disciplined them, warned them, restrained them, protected them, and sent His Son to them; and they rejected and crucified Him. In this act the Gentiles joined. All are under judgment to God. There is no use of further test. There is nothing in the flesh for God. Man is hopelessly corrupt. He is not only guilty, but is utterly unable to retrieve his condition. The law but accentuates his guilt. It cannot justify. It can only condemn. How hopeless is the picture! But it is the dark background on which God will display the riches of His grace in Christ Jesus!”20
The great British preacher Charles Spurgeon looked out over his congregation in the late 1800’s and made this comment: “How true that last verse is of many today! Their sins are destroying them, the lusts of the flesh destroy the body, drunkenness and such like are destructive habits, and they make those who practice them to be miserable. What miserable persons, what miserable families, what miserable countries, are made by indulgence in sin! There is no true happiness without holiness.”21 I’m sure that if Spurgeon were alive today, and could see what is now accepted as normal moral conduct, even by so-called believers, he would be so appalled that he might apologize for criticizing those he condemned in his day.
And Frederic Godet makes this comment: “The apostle in drawing this picture, which is only a grouping together of strokes of the pencil, made by the hands of psalmists and prophets, does not certainly mean that each of those characteristics is found equally developed in every man, Some, even the most of them, may remain latent in many men; but they all exist in germ in the selfishness and natural pride of the ego, and the least circumstance may cause them to pass into the active state, when the fear of God does not govern the heart. Such is the cause of the divine condemnation which is suspended over the human race.”22
All of what has been said so far is a clear indication that the Apostle Paul and all of the great early church scholars and subsequent Bible commentators on these Scriptures are in agreement that no matter how many laws are passed and no matter how many social programs are developed to help people develop better character, none of it will ever lead mankind to be what God can make of them through His Son Jesus the Christ. Holiness and eternal life cannot be manufactured by man, it is a gift from God through His love, grace, and mercy.
1 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Frédéric Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Shalom is the Hebrew word for “peace.”
4 Isaiah 59:7-8 – Complete Jewish Bible
5 Ibid. 57:21 – Complete Jewish Bible; See Isaiah 59:7-8
6 Mishnah, Third Division, Nashim, Tractate Gittin, Ch. 5:8
7 Jerusalem Talmud: First Division, Tractate Demai, Ch. 4:3
8 Leket (“gleanings”) refers to grain left behind in the field for the poor – Leviticus 19:9; 23:22
9 Shich’chah (“forgotten sheaves”) refers to sheaves of grain left in the filed during harvest – Deuteronomy 24:19
10 Pe’ah (“corner”) refers to the portion of a crop left standing in the field for the poor – Leviticus 19:9; 23;22
11 Moses Maimonides: Mishneh Torah, Sefer Madda, Avodat Kochavim, Ch. 10:5
12 See Isaiah 59:7
13 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc.cit
14 Acts of the Apostles 20:26-27
15 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc, cit.
16 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Pelagius: ibid.
18 See Jeremiah 6:16; Luke 1:78-79; Romans 8:6
19 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 Frederic Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.